Once we Western interpreters recognize the influence our individualistic bent has on how we read biblical law, we can discover the moral values it expresses. Unimpeded by our biases, we can recognize Old Testament law’s humanistic quality. Or, as one scholar described of Deuteronomy, its “progressive and protective attitude to the legal status of women.”
As I write these words, a common refrain permeates the news outlets, social media, and dinner tables across America. It’s a chorus so collective that we hardly seem to notice it, but scan the headlines on election news, healthcare concerns, or the border crisis and you’ll discover a single theme rumbling beneath the noise: our values.
In the interest of preventing clenched jaws or furrowed brows, rest assured that this is indeed a theological conversation, not a political critique.
But those political critiques are often surprisingly theological, often framed in categories of moral absolutes that should comprise a just and right society, that describe how the world should be. Even ardent atheists – those who would rend religion away from public consciousness, who shun the notion imposing on another’s personal moral choices – are compelled by an innate, driving sense of “should.”
A society’s laws signal its values. We instinctively measure a society’s moral character by what it protects, prohibits, and punishes. We exercise this instinct – this driving sense of “should” – whenever we read and interpret the laws of the Old Testament.
But what happens when our own culture skews how we read and interpret the Old Testament?
In their book, Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes, authors Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien describe how our own cultural perspectives influence – and in some cases, impede – our biblical interpretation. For Western (particularly American) readers, individualism is a primary value; the purpose of life is to fulfill one’s self-actualizing goals.